Invisible Costs of Trading
You can feel them, but you can’t see them. I’m talking about invisible trading costs. Although some single transaction trading costs can run as high as hundreds of dollars at the large brokerage firms, investors are generally aware of the bottom-basement commissions paid on trades executed at discount brokerage firms like Scottrade, TD Ameritrade (AMTD), E-Trade (ETFC), and Charles Schwab (SCHW) – generally less than $10 per trade. Unfortunately, these commissions are estimated to only account for 20% of total trading costs1. What most investors are unaware of are the host of invisible trading costs and expenses associated with active trading.
Here are some of the invisible costs:
Bid-Ask Spread: Besides the explicit commissions charged, traders must incur the implicit costs of the bid-ask spread. Let’s suppose you have a stock trading at $12.50 per share (ask price) and $12.25 per share (bid price). If you were to immediately buy one share for $12.50 (ask) and sell immediately for $12.25 (ask), then you would be -2% in the hole instantly – more than double the $7.95 commission paid on a $1,000 investment. Effectively, the investor would already be down about -3% the instant the small investment was made.
Impact Costs: The issue of impact costs is a bigger problem for larger institutional investors, although thinly traded stocks (those securities with relatively small trading volume) can even become expensive for retail investors. Suppose the same stock mentioned previously initially traded at $12.50 per share before you transacted, but reached $13.00 per share upon completion (with an average $12.75 price paid). The $.25 cent increase (average price minus initial price) translates into another -2% increase in the costs.
Taxes: It’s not what you make that matters, but rather what you keep that makes the difference. If you make a decent amount of money actively trading, but end up giving Uncle Sam more than potentially 40% of the gains, then your bank account may grow less than expected.
While my examples may shed some light on the costs of trading, an in-depth study using data from Morningstar and NYSE was conducted by three astute professors (Roger Edelen [University of California, Davis], Richard Evans [University of Virginia], and Gregory Kadlec [Virginia Polytechnic Institute]) showing that an average fund’s annual trading costs were estimated to be 1.44%, higher than an average fund’s overall expense ratio of 1.21%.
Unfortunately from an investor’s standpoint, as much as 30% of all trading costs can be attributed to money naturally pouring in and out of funds, due to fund share purchases and redemptions. Therefore, wildly popular or out-of-favor funds will have a detrimental impact on performance. I know firsthand the costs of managing a large fund, much like captaining a supertanker – you create a lot of waves and it can take a while to change directions. Smaller funds, however, can navigate trades more nimbly, much like a speedboat leaving behind smaller cost waves in its wake.
Style can also have an impact on trading costs. Value-based funds that sell into strength or buy into weakness can be considered liquidity providers, and therefore will experience lower trading costs. On the flip side, momentum strategies effectively pour gasoline on hot stocks purchases and pile on damaging sales to cratering losers.
Emotional Costs of Trading
More impactful, but more difficult to quantify, are the emotional trading costs of greed and fear (i.e., chasing extended winners out of greed and panicking out of losing positions due to fear). Constantly hounding winners and capitulating your losers may work in a few instances, but can lead to disastrous results in the long-run. Even if an investor is correct on the sale of a security, the investor must also be right on the subsequent buy transaction (no easy feat).
With that said, there are no hard and fast rules when buying/selling stocks. Buying a stock that has doubled or tripled in and of itself is not necessarily a bad idea, as long as you have credible assumptions and data to support adequate earnings/cash flow growth and/or multiple expansion. Consistent with that thought process, a plummeting stock is not reason enough to buy, and does not automatically mean the price will subsequently rebound. Reversion to the mean can be a powerful force in security selection, but you need a disciplined process to underpin those investment decisions.
As I have stated in the past, investing is like a religion (read more Investing Religion). Most investors stubbornly believe their financial religion is the right way to make money. I personally believe there is more than one way to make money, just as I believe different religions can coexist to achieve their spiritual goals. Through academic research, and a lot of practical experience, my religion believes in the implementation of low-cost, tax efficient products and strategies used over longer-term time horizons. I use a blend of active and passive management that leverages my professional experience (see Sidoxia’s Fusion product), but I would fault nobody for pursuing a purely passive investment strategy. As John Bogle shows, and has proven with the financial success of his company Vanguard, passive investing by and large materially outperforms professional mutual fund managers (see Hammered Investors article).
Investing can be thrilling and exciting, but like a leaky faucet, the relatively small and apparently harmless list of trading costs have a way of collecting over the long-run before sinking long-term performance returns. Sure, there are some high-frequency traders that make a living by amassing a large sums of rebates for providing short-term liquidity, but for most investors, excessive exposure to invisible trading costs will lead to visible underperformance.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including Vanguard funds), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in AMTD, ETFC, SCHW, Scottrade, MORN, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.